Benjo! Benjo! Benjo! And, getting a Voice

Apparently, I'm the new Voice Coordinator at my Nova school. This basically means I have more responsibilities for the same pay - a familiar theme in my work career and, I'm sure, in the employment histories of many twentysomethings. Yes, I'm a twentysomething. If you promise to ignore that lightning bolt of despair, I will, too. Nova has a Voice Room, which is open for eight hours a day. Students can go and sit in there, torturing their teachers, for 20 minutes or the full eight - the cost is the same. There are Voice themes that every school has - "special" voices for high or or mid or low level students, topic voices focusing on movies, sports, cooking or whatever else interests the teacher, and so on. Sometimes it's even fun. Last night I had my first topic voice, a movie voice about "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" The two-hour class was attended by a group of student, small but fiesty - kind of like me. Anyway, even though they seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves, they felt the poor rabbit was too complex for them. They recommended a cartoon themed voice, focusing on Superman "because stories are simple. Only good and evil." Is this place cool or what? After work I headed off for a brief inebriational adventure at the Pink Cow, and got roped into doing dishes. It wasn't that hard to convince me: the owner offered me drinks and a small amount of money. Drinks would have been more than plenty. I stumbled home from Harajuku around one or so, but not before the "Comedy Night" courtesy the Tokyo Comedy Store had gotten its talons into me. I hadn't seen a live comedy show since taking a friend out for her birthday to see Margaret Cho more than a year ago. Most of the comedians were unremarkable, but this one Aussie guy had the entire place, including me, on the freakin' floor. It would be rude to repeat Cloudy B. Bongwater's act here; go see him. He has shows on Tuesdays at the Fiddler in Takadanobaba. What I can tell you is that there's nothing like a little Japanese lesson from the mouth of a jaded foreigner. Oh, the cynicism! Oh, the eccentricity! Oh, the inanity! No wonder they think we're all baka.

Ga-ga for Ghibli

totoro movie 5.jpg In Japan, the designation of "National Living Treasure" is given to those people who have helped preserve the cultural legacy of the country. If the title includes those who help expand the Japanese cultural footprint, one should be given to the movie director Hayao Miyazaki. I've sung his praises here before, but the man and his company, Studio Ghibli, simply have never made a bad movie. It's possible that they're incapable of it. By producing movies of such high quality, with exquisitely rendered animation and stories that contain enough complex themes and nostaligic moments for adults to sink their teeth into, while featuring characters easily recognizable by kids, he has taken the art of anime to a higher level. Many of his characters might have an irresistable cuteness. I don't do cute so readily - I know, a shocking revelation - but for me, the heart and soul that he gives them makes watching My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Nausicca or Princess Mononoke, my favorite, over and over again such a joy. I was thrilled to finally get to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum in the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka with Marina, who is far more nuts over the inherent cuteness of all things Ghibli than I. The propaganda encourages you to "lose your way" and enjoy the Museum, which is somewhere between San Francisco's Exploratorium and the Louvre on the interactivity scale. I was rather miffed to have to turn my camera to "ninja" mode to get some of the pictures I wanted. The Museum has great Ghibli kitsch appeal: exclusive movies, a giant Catbus for kids to romp on, models and drawings galore, even a room done up like Miyazaki's personal studio. That room was particularly insane, with an absurd amount of detail thrown in - down to the names of the books on the shelves and CDs near the stereo. Without a doubt, the best part is the exclusive movie that's a sequel of sorts to My Neighbor Totoro, featuring Mei and more Catbuses and Totoros than you could shake a leaf umbrella at. The ticket to get into the theater is three frames from a Studio Ghibli film - tres collectible. The building that houses the Museum was obviously designed by somebody taking a lot of drugs. Doorways designed for children, a la Alice in Wonderland, spiral staircases that constrict in on anyone using them over 40 kgs., giant robot repilicas on the roof, it all fit together, like an Escher painting for kids. And at the entrance to it all is a giant, gray, furry beast with a leaf on its head. I love Tokyo.

Return to Tsukiji

auction - tuna 2.jpg Last week Marina and I visited that pulse-pounding world of never-ending dead animals from the sea, the Tsukiji Fish Market. Actually, I think the market has become my favorite place in Tokyo. Not only can you get the freshest and best sushi in the city, usually for a not-unreasonable price, but there's something about the place that feels traditional. Part of that has to do with the shrine that sits right behind the market; we caught a morning ritual being performed by priests. I'm curious about the ritual's significance, it looked like they were taking wooden boxes and stools, moving them around and passing them between each other. But mostly, the appeal of Tsukiji is that there is little or no "advanced capitalism," as Haruki Murakami might put it; just rampant, unadultered selling. Buy this dead fish. Buy that live one. Here's one somewhere in-between. No fancy five-story video screens, no bleached-and-tanned teeny-bopper twits. No Smap blaring at you from all sides. No part of Tsukiji exempifies this better than the fish auction. We caught a little bit of it, and it seemed to consist of a gaggle (or should that be a school?) of fishmongers crowding around rows of frozen tuna carcasses. The auctioneer quickly shouts out some vitals pertaining to a particular fish, raising his hand. Somebody from the crowd shouts back. The auctioneer shouts again, lowers his hand, and moves on. There's brisk business to be done at 6:30 a.m. at Tsukiji, and as soon as a fishmonger has his fish - invariably his, since they're all men - the body gets loaded onto a wooden cart and dragged off. Although the auction moves briskly, the volume of tuna carcasses shouldn't be underestimated. There's only so much shouting over a dead tuna body before the craving to eat the tuna becomes overwhelming, so we headed off to get an excellent sushi breakfast.

A word to the wise

I am a vindictive bastard, and if I catch anyone leaving racist, bigoted reader comments again, I will cause you immense difficulty.

A little story about Mary Lou

I have a houseguest right now, and much of my free time has been devoted, gleefully, to hanging out with her. There just hasn't been much time to talk about Japan. This evening we walked into the HMV store in Shibuya, the land where 25-year-olds go to die. Really, there's not many people there out of their early twenties, it seems, and the place is probably the most superficial and Japan, Inc. in all of Tokyo. We walk into the HMV, and opposite the register on the first floor are a couple of prominently displayed CDs by Mary Lou Lord. She's a... well, I'd love to tell you about her, but as of this posting her Web site's down and I can't confirm anything that my feeble memory can recall. Basically, she's from Boston, she's been plying her folksy rock and chick-with-a-guitar shtick on subways and street corners for years and years, and she's quite good. So there're a bunch of her CDs on sale in Japan. When I left Boston, this was about as high on my list of likely occurances as me learning Japanese quickly. That hasn't happened, unfortunately, but there was another Mary Lou encounter a mere hour after the HMV CD sighting. The walk from Ebisu Station to my house is littered with convenies, convenience stores. We walk into one for gum and sugar water flavored in a way that is supposed to resemble lemons but really just tastes like sugar water, and which song is playing on the store's radio? Lord's "Lights are Changing". Living in a culture that is so drastically different, at it's core, from the one I grew up in, I find myself grabbing onto anything that I can use to connect memories from the past to the strangeness of today. It's kind of like turning my life into a museum, but it's a living museum - free of charge, with rotating exhibits, but no guided tours, either.

Come here my little dumpling

gyoza stadium 1.jpg The food gallery has been rebuilt, and I've added pictures from my trip to Ikebukuro's Gyoza Stadium. The official propaganda describes it as the world's first theme park specializing in gyoza; it's a safe bet that it's the world's only such theme park. For those of you who don't care about dumplings, or gyoza in Japanese, then you might as well stop reading and go back to your lutefisk and vegemite sandwich. Gyoza are Chinese, of course, but the Japanese have never been shy about borrowing from other cultures. The Saitama city of Utsonomiya is best-known for it's many flavors of gyoza, just as Sapporo's Ramen Alley is known as the birthplace of Japanese-style ramen. To find Gyoza Stadium, it's helpful to imagine a crooked Chinese box. It's jammed into a corner of the creepy Namja Town indoor theme park like a clogged artery, which is hidden away on the second floor of the obscenely massive Sunshine City complex in Ikebukuro. Despite being a pain to find, Gyoza Stadium makes fantastic dumplings accesible to people who don't want to visit the sticks for good food, and whomever decided that the world needs Gyoza Stadium should be given a medal, or maybe just a gold-fake covered gyoza. There are a mind-boggling number of different gyoza to choose from. Deep-fried, shrimp, vegetable, mixed, spicy, lightly fried, steamed, gigantic... Simply put, it's heaven for the gyoza afficionado. At 250 yen up to 700 or 800 yen for a handful of gyoza, the prices are fairly reasonble, and sometimes cheaper than the crapola that's easily available in Kabukicho - even with the 300 yen entry fee. The food is great; I got stuffed on so many different dumplings for a very reasonable price. That's to be expected, almost. It wouldn't have the word-of-mouth buzz that it does without the food quality to back it up. The decor can most diplomatically be described as unique: a mix between something that Tim Burton rejected for being too weird and a traditional Japanese village. Strains of surf guitars mixed with J-pop as the music changed from one section to the next. Dark lighting and corridors that were horror-movie alleyways steered us through the rabbit warren of shops. I'd been waiting six months to check this place out, since I arrived in October and found out about it. A restaurant complex for dumplings. It's the closest I've come to being a judge on the Iron Chef. Even though the whole Namja Town theme park setting is utterly pathetic, unless you're into bad kitschy Japanese tourists traps designed to not-so-sublty separate the guillible from their cash. But the food, the food... Here's a puff piece on Gyoza Stadium whose facts I can't verify, but are probably right. Never mind that, though, go for the gyoza.

The other ‘juku

fashion 3.jpg A key bragging right to living in Tokyo is that when your friends come to visit and ask if you really live in this crazy place, you get to smile like the Cheshire cat and laugh maniacally. Okay, so maybe that's just me. My friend Marina is in town, and although my six tatami-mat room is a bit cramped, it's worth it just to hear her exclaim, "Ohmigod," every five minutes. I get to relive the whole experience of meeting Tokyo vicariously, and it's just as fun and weird as the first time around. There are many important first-time-to-Japan experiences that anybody who's lived here for at least a month can regale you with: first onigiri, first ride on the Yamanote, first sushi in Japan. The list goes on, and can get nauseatingly conceited if one isn't careful. But the most important thing for a visitor to Japan to do is: Get your money before you fly. Do not, under any circumstances, expect a hearty "Irashaimasen!" from a Japanese ATM. Marina is an intelligent, witty, responsible woman with an oft-underestimated love for The Simpsons, but she was no match for the devious cunning of the Japanese ATM system. While she was trying to shake hands with it, so to speak, it was doing a fine job of gutting her sanity. Details are still sketchy, so we'll find out tomorrow if she'll make it. To help her deal with what we think to be a withdrawal cap set in Japan that she violated by $0.84, not that any of the 17 ATMs she visited mentioned anything along those lines, I took her to Harakjuku. The place is notorious on weekends for hosting the kind of crowds endemic to Japan, and featuring Gothy Japanese kids decked out in their finest leather and lace. In other words, it's the perfect place to see modern Japan. The crowds were there, no doubt about it. But I guess my expectations got the better of me. There were only a few brave souls wearing costumes found more often in fetish videos than in casual street wear, even though Takeshita-dori, the major shopping boulevard with the craziness and the hoo-ha, looked even younger than Shibuya. It's often joked that there's nobody over 25 in Shibuya, and I'd take that down a few notches for a Saturday stroll through Harajuku. Part of the problem was that I go to Harajuku to hang out at a bar I like, and hadn't been around enough during the day to experience a flock of 16-year-olds dressed like maids meandering down the street en masse. When the flock didn't materialize, my faith in Japanese youth sub-culture was wrecked. The other part is my admittedly unfounded fear that Japanese sub-culture is going through some sort of sea change, and the days of bizarre costumes worn by suburbanite teens are soon to be no more, much as the platform shoe has largely disappeared from the fashion landscape. Or maybe I just hit a bad day for the freakshow. Regardless, Japan is wacky and wonderful, all over again.

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